Aaron Strong once quit a graduate program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But don’t worry, he definitely still managed to get a good education. The Maine native arrived at the University of Maine to teach in the School of Marine Sciences armed with plenty of degrees (Swarthmore, Tufts, Stanford) and a thirst to work with Mainers on better ways to confront environmental challenges. We talked to him about his fast track to professor status, algae in Yellowstone and the project he’s coordinating right now through the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions.

BATES BOY: Strong grew up in Lewiston, where his parents were both professors at Bates College (Mother: Japanese literature and environmental studies. Father: East Asian religion.) He graduated from Lewiston High School in 2002 and went on to Swarthmore, near Philadelphia, where he double majored in political science and biology. “My joke is that I have sort of refused to choose between them ever since.” After Swarthmore, he spent a year doing laboratory work in Montana, where he studied algae in hot springs at Yellowstone, specifically, how algae can photosynthesize in near boiling water. “It was fairly esoteric.” That year was more than enough. “I realized I needed to do science that mattered more to people’s daily lives in order for me to be happy and feel like I am contributing to the world.”

BACK EAST: Next he spent two years at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, working on a long-term research project on how both sea level rise and urban development were influencing salt marshes. “I cut my chops on salt marshes,” he said. He also met his future wife, who was also working at the lab. He still felt too removed from people, and when he started in a PhD program in microbiology at MIT, that sense that he was in the wrong place only worsened. “I did not want to be pipetting in a lab.” (That means measuring small samples into test tubes and such.) He went to his adviser and told her this wasn’t going to work out; he wanted to do something more policy-oriented. She let him quit but promplty hired him to stick around, doing research into “ocean fertilization,” that is, a plan to use iron to stimulate phytoplankton blooms in the ocean to absorb carbon dioxide from the ocean, and why it was such a bad plan. “I got hooked,” Strong said. “I am so intrigued about how people make decisions based on science, and how we, as a society, write new regulations that often involve some weird mix of scientific fact and practice.” He published an article in Nature in 2009 about how ineffective ocean fertilization would be in fighting climate change.

SECOND DEGREE: He picked up a master’s degree in Climate Change Policy from Tufts in Boston after that and considered a government job, maybe at the Environmental Protection Agency. But while at Tufts he did a lot of teaching and found he liked it. He decided to get a doctorate and choose Stanford, where an inter-disciplinary program in environmental resources allowed him to straddle the line between ecology and political science. “I wanted to study how we are writing the rules to manage the carbon and nitrogen cycles,” i.e. sustainability science. “It was fantastic.” The program allowed him time to develop and teach eight courses. “I basically got to create this whole new curriculum there. It was a real passion for me.”

TEACHER TEACHER: By then, Strong felt ready to leap right into a teaching job, but he wasn’t sure anyone would hire him without post-doctoral work. He got lucky, landing a job at the University of Maine in its Marine Policy program, “which is part of our Marine Sciences Department and which is where I love being. I can work with our oceanographers on problems from the global scale down to right here in Maine.” Major bonus? The Mitchell Center, where he is now a fellow. “It is one of the reasons I wanted to work at the University of Maine to start out with.”

ACID OCEAN: One of the major problems facing Maine as a result of climate change is ocean acidification, a process by which carbon dioxide dissolves into water, forming carbonic acid and making the waters more acidic. Creatures that rely on their calcium carbonate shells for homes (like, say, clams, oysters, mussels and scallops) may be slower to develop or quicker to die as a result. In 2014 Maine became the second state in the nation (after Washington) to create a state commission on ocean acidification, Strong said. “Now it is a thing,” Strong said, noting that states like New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York all have them. “We were a bit ahead of the curve.” But while the West Coast states transitioned into government-funded agencies around the topic, Maine did not fund such an agency. Instead the group continues as the voluntary effort of community, government, nonprofit and academic groups, called the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership. Strong recently joined the steering committee. And he got to thinking: “What can I do, what can I study, separate from the policy work?”

CONTROL GROUP: For starters, he can gather more data about on-shore sources of contributing factors to acidification. “What we realized as a scientific community, that changed the game, is that there are drivers of acidification that we might have an ability to control,” like runoff from lawn treatments and farms for instance. Or if they can’t be controlled, maybe they could be predicted, which might mean scientists could give an oyster farmer the heads up about an impending exacerbating factor that she or he could buffer for by say, making a change to water chemistry in a hatchery. Or remediate other areas with something like kelp farming, or protecting eel grass. “We can adapt. It’s not going to fix the whole ocean, but it will maybe make a difference for the species and the local economy that you care about.”

TESTING 1, 2, 3: The potential is already there to do more extensive monitoring. “It struck me that one of the interesting things about Maine is there are a whole lot of volunteer groups (27 of them to be precise) who are regularly making these measurements.” Groups like Friends of Casco Bay, which has volunteers regularly sampling to monitor the health of Casco Bay. A lot of that is a simple pH test. If the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership can expand the monitoring to include assessments of alkalinity and carbon content, the data will help determine what’s going on on shore, or up the rivers. But it’s not as easy as just handing out test tubes. One test would involve adding mercury to the samples. “Who is going to have their volunteers playing around with mercury in a small boat? No one. It is not acceptable.” But making sure all those samples get to someone who can safely work with mercury, in a timely fashion, that’s a goal he can tackle. “Solving the science isn’t about the science, it is about, how do you coordinate the people doing it? This is all exciting from a social science standpoint.” He and others met late last month to begin coordination efforts.

BOTTOMS UP: Twenty-seven groups: Is it like herding cats? Not so bad, he says. “What is amazing in Maine is that we also have folks from the state there, from the Department of Environmental Protection, who are interested in seeing advances in monitoring.” They’ll help, too. “That is what makes Maine unique.” He’s actually writing a paper on the Washington state versus Maine approach. “They have a lot of resources in Washington state. But in Maine, this is very much a bottom up, grassroots approach.” There’s no place like home.

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